There are many things you expect to find in the cratered, cramped heart of Gaza City, but a group of proto-Germaine Greers and Betty Friedans would be low on the list. Yet, I am sitting under a lush green tree with a group of tough old ladies at the heart of the feminist hub they have built here – and where hundreds of Gazan women are flocking to find freedom.
In 1989, the women’s rights campaigner Um Ahmad returned to her native Gaza after decades working for women’s groups across the world. “I was determined to do something about the fact that women were in a much worse position here than even in other Arab countries,” she says.
She found that Palestinian women were trapped between the savage Israeli occupation and a suffocatingly patriarchal Palestinian society. She knew there was only one way to free them – by getting them jobs and hard earning power.
Her proposal to establish an organisation providing jobs for women was refused by the Israeli occupying authorities, but Ms Ahmad refused to let this stop her. Risking interrogation and imprisonment, she went ahead and set up a network for women to make jams and foods in their homes and to sell them on. In Gaza, the Women’s Institute was revolutionary, and jam-making an act of subversion.
After four years, Ms Ahmad’s organisation was finally legalised. Today – thanks to the Welfare Association, one of the three charities being supported in this year’s Independent Christmas Appeal – it has a permanent base.
She is sitting with me in the courtyard, watching women sip coffee and read print-outs from the internet terminals here. If you shut out the endless car-horns – the tinnitus of the most congested land-mass in the world – and the simulated explosions of the Israeli sonic booms, this is as close to tranquil as Gaza City gets.
“Women are suffering most from the occupation and economic collapse,” she explains. “When the husband is out of work and at home all the time, he starts picking on his wife. For a lot of men, being unemployed and humiliated by the Israelis makes them show they are still in control somewhere – over their wives and children. Often violence breaks out.”
Ms Ahmad’s priority was to give women a chance to earn money and achieve independence. That is why she set up a women-only, non-profit clothing factory, and today as she walks along its floor with me, the 30 women are engaging in the usual factory-floor banter. They all have a story of how this centre changed their lives. Leila is a 40-year-old sewing machinist, and as she steps away from her machine she explains: “I used to live on food and money subsidies from a local charity. I was stuck at home, staring at the walls and thinking ‘What am I doing with my life?’
“Then a charity worker told me I was intelligent and I could be a producer, not just a passive recipient – and he put me in touch with this charity. Now I support my husband and my seven children.” She laughs with a mixture of surprise and glee. “I am convinced that sitting at home waiting for donations is bad. Going out, fulfilling yourself, being independent – that is good. I want all women to be able to do this.”
Fatima is a bubbly 18-year-old who works on the knitting machines. She has always wanted to be a teacher of deaf children, but her parents could not afford to send her to university – so she is paying her own way as a student while working. “It’s an amazing feeling, to be able to stand on your own feet: to be an independent woman,” she says.
The Welfare Association helps to pay for these women to make school uniforms for the poverty-wracked children, and to maintain a bakery. Ms Ahmad says: “The most noticeable thing is that when women first join our society, they don’t speak a lot. They are silent, because that’s how they have been taught to be. But after a while they start to express their views, and soon they are drawn out of their silence. They want to browse the internet, see the world out there. It’s like a person who has been locked in a room; then you offer them a window and they want to see more and more.”
Ms Ahmad wants to open more windows – but she needs your money to do it. “When you help a Palestinian woman, you help all her children,” she says. “When you free a Palestinian woman, you help to free Palestine.”